TOKYO — That was embarrassing.
There's no other way to put it, no sugar-coating or sunny side.
It was embarrassing.
And it spoke volumes about the state of the U.S. men's sprinting.
On Thursday, the men's heats of the 4x100-meter relay were run to whittle the field of 16 down to eight for the medal race.
And the United States men didn't qualify.
Over the last 30 years the U.S. men's 4x100 team has been a carnival of mistakes at the two major international events, the Olympics and World Championships: dropped batons, end-of-exchange-zone violations, beginning-of-exchange-zone violations, one weird one when a runner in another lane ran into an American and injured him.
They haven't won a gold medal at the Olympics since 2000, a streak that will continue after Thursday's inexcusable performance. They did win gold at the 2019 World Championships, leading to the hope that perhaps things were getting back on the right track, no pun intended.
Instead? Disaster in Tokyo.
If you don't believe me, take it from the greatest American male sprinter of all time:
"The USA team did everything wrong in the men's relay," Carl Lewis tweeted. "The passing system is wrong, athletes running the wrong legs, and it was clear that there was no leadership. It was a total embarrassment, and completely unacceptable for a USA team to look worse than AAU kids."
Speaking with USA Today's Christine Brennan, Lewis had even sharper words, calling Thursday a "clown show."
What went wrong for U.S. men's 4x100 relay
The first issue starts with the race itself. The U.S. went with a lineup of, in order, Trayvon Bromell, Fred Kerley, Ronnie Baker and Cravon Gillespie. The handoff from Kerley to Baker was a shambles, with Kerley running up on Baker's back. That's on Baker; it means he took off too late. Baker recovered well enough and the handoff to Gillespie looked solid, but Gillespie got beat down the stretch and the U.S. finished sixth.
Time: 38.10 seconds. It's apparently the fastest preliminary time in Olympics history that wasn't good enough to get a team into the finals. So...yay?
The U.S. lost out on one of the time-qualifying spots to Germany and Ghana. (The first three teams in each of the two heats plus the two fastest teams from either heat that did not automatically qualify move through on time.) On paper, it should not have been a contest.
At the U.S. Trials last month, Gillespie was the "slowest" of the four in the 100m final, running 10-flat. None of the four German sprinters had posted faster than a 10.19 seconds. You can't even get into the U.S. Trials unless you've run 10.05.
Issue two: practice. There was none. Not according to the three runners who did talk to media afterwards. (Bromell breezed past, same as he did after not making the 100m final.)
When Gillespie was asked how much the team had practiced, he scrunched his face. "Let's say a few days."
Kerley: "Don't know."
Baker: "Not much."
A 4x100 handoff is blind, meaning that the person receiving the baton can't see it. It takes practice, reps and reps and reps to develop familiarity and timing, because the exchange zone is 30 meters and you must exchange the baton within the zone each time. Mistakes can still happen even for the most practiced quartet, but the likelihood is a lot lower when the practice has been put in.
If the United States wants to get back to relay glory, the men who finish 4 through 8 (one extra in case of injury) in the 100m at the Trials in an Olympic or U.S. Championships in a Worlds year should immediately be brought to a camp to train together and practice handoffs, and that's the team. No switching between prelims and final.
The Nos. 4, 5, 6, and 7 men's 100m runners from the U.S., with weeks of practice to facilitate three perfect exchanges, are better than basically every other country's top 4. Being fast doesn't matter if you can't get the baton around cleanly.
Team USA reportedly canceled any pre-Olympics relay camps due to COVID-19, though USATF declined to make any coach, in this case relays coach Orin Richburg, available until after the meet.
Issue three: The model of professional track in the U.S. doesn't really lend itself to a team atmosphere. Athletes are sponsored, and bonuses for medals at major international meets are part of their contracts. That might explain why we didn't see a Michael Cherry or Wadeline Jonathas in the 4x400 mixed relay final, because they still had their own individual races to run, their own interests to protect.
That was another relay that didn't turn out at all as expected. After dominating at the 2019 World Championships, winning by 2.5 seconds, the U.S. only earned bronze here, out-leaned at the line by the Dominican Republic for silver in a race won by Poland.
Worth noting: The Netherlands had Femke Bol, its star 400m hurdler who still had all three rounds in her event to run, as part of its finals four in the mixed relay.
American track and field athletes live and train all over the country, and they decide on an individual basis which meets they will participate in outside of the Olympics and Worlds, which may make it hard to demand they gather for a one- or two-week relay camp. Gillespie noted that other countries have relay teams that largely stay together for multiple years, which goes a long way toward 4x100 success; in the U.S., it's hard to know who will make World or Olympic teams from year to year.
Issue four: hubris. The days of the U.S. showing up on the starting line, announcing, "we're here!" and getting a medal are long gone. They've been gone. This isn't new. And if they — meaning Richburg — thought they were just going to cruise into the final because, well, they're the U.S., they deserved to lose on arrogance alone.
Gillespie intimated that the decision on exactly who would be the four men running the prelim wasn't known weeks or days before the race.
Where was Noah Lyles? The 200-meter bronze medalist from Wednesday night, who anchored the 2019 World Championship winners, should have been the starter because he runs a superior curve out of the blocks. Was Lyles being "saved" under the assumption a spot in the medal race was guaranteed?
Canada was smart enough not to be so blasé, as 200m gold medalist Andre De Grasse anchored its team and ran the second-fastest time in the round.
"You can't just expect them to hand you the medal," Gillespie said. "You have to go out and you have to perform. At the end of the day it's unacceptable."
Baker is not a curve runner, so Kerley, who was a 400m World medalist before dropping down to the 100m and 200m this year, likely would have better option in the third spot. Having Lyles lead off, Bromell as second leg, Kerley at three and Baker as anchor seems like it would have been a superior lineup.
The women's 4x100 team advanced to its medal race, but at this meet, that's not a surprise. Of the four gold medals the U.S. has won in track and field thus far, three of them were won by women. Shot putter Ryan Crouser became the first man to win gold on Thursday.
If the U.S. has become fine with being an also-ran in an event it once dominated, so be it. If it's not, it's past time to start taking it seriously and make changes.
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